Caritas in Veritate

by Kenneth Anderson

I am going to be on lite-blogging status for a while, due to a pinched nerve and muscle tear caused – everyone please take careful note – not by my athletic and extreme sports lifestyle, but by bad ergonomic habits at the keyboard.  Let me assure you, at this moment you do not want to be me.

However, while spending my time reading rather than writing, I plan to read (having hastily skimmed and read some commentary about) the new encyclical from the Pope, Caritas in Veritate.  It addresses economic and social development on a global basis, with passages about human rights and their relationship to social duties and the common good, the economic and financial order of the world, the environment, globalization, and much else.  There are lots of sites around that have posted it, but here is a Vatican site, so I assume it must be an accepted English version.

I am not Catholic, and so my interest in this encyclical is not that of a believer or adherent of the faith.  However, I enormously value Catholic social and moral thought, without having any religious belief in it – without it exercising a voice of authority apart from its inherent reasoning – and I have always welcomed that these encyclicals are addressed not just to the faithful, but to “all people of good will.”  They seek to bridge a divide that is sometimes bridgeable and sometimes not, between arguments based solely upon public reason and arguments that rely for their acceptance upon specifically religious beliefs and views.  I can see from a fast reading that there are many judgments made in both those categories with which I would profoundly disagree, but I can also see that my understanding of these questions is deepened by the Catholic Church’s offering to argumentation from a specifically religious viewpoint into the public square of reason and debate.

I am, as ever, grateful to live in a society in which I am free to dispute all these religious view points, reject them, ridicule them, heap scorn upon them; one of the remarkable – and not in a good way – features of the UN and its emerging approach to human rights, including free expression, is the gradual embrace of norms that would make all that subject to sanction.  We live in a moment in which the discourse of human rights, at least at the UN and its organs, is weirdly split between two worlds – an ever more finely attuned secular progressive view of rights, on the one hand, and rights as merely a language for global communalism.  The two are both strong at this point in time, but the momentum, so far as I can see, lies not with human rights as secular liberalism, but instead with their reinterpretation as multiculturalism, the management by elites of communal global claims, the most important at this time in history being Muslim religious claims and their status and place in the global public square(s).

A few decades from now, I suspect that the transformation of human rights from the vanguard value of liberal internationalism into what we might call “multicultural internationalism,” global religious communalism, will be more or less complete.  The new version of human rights might be many things, but one thing it will not be is “liberal,” no matter how thoroughly it has appropriated and mastered the language of liberal rights.  But that is a topic for another day.

I was first introduced to Catholic social thought by my old friend and mentor, Harvard Law School’s Mary Ann Glendon, starting with the 19th century encyclicals on the dignity of labor.  She remarked to me once that an encyclical is only as powerful as the encyclical’s willingness to be plain as to when it is arguing from public reason and when it is instead arguing from religious claims that it cannot expect will be universally shared.  It was not that it should not forswear reasoning from religious premises – but that it had to forswear allowing such religious premises to be smuggled in covertly without admitting to it.  About that, I think she is quite right.

(I wonder, side note, whether it would be interesting to solicit some comments from scholars and intellectual who would not normally show up on OJ as to the vision of the globalized world in ideal form that the encyclical seems to project.)

2 Responses

  1. Ken, I wish you a full and speedy recovery. People underestimate the dangerousness of our profession… maybe a third of my colleagues have back/neck/wrist problems. There should be some law prof’s version of the Coal Miners Act.

  2. I found this post very interesting.  Especially the commentary on the trajectory of human rights.  You might consider inviting Thomas Pogge to comment.  His discussion of cosmopolitan justice in World Poverty and Human Rights in my mind speaks to the central and inevitable feature of future human rights thinking: a rejection of the traditional conception of sovereignty.  I hope you continue to discuss this.   

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